Why we must curb our use of the car

From a lecture by the head of civil engineering at Imperial College, Tony Ridley, given at the Royal Society for the Arts, in Bristol

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I, like many other professionals, greatly welcomed the Government's 1998 White Paper. At its heart was the concept of integration: "We want transport to contribute to our quality of life, not detract from it. The way forward is through an integrated transport policy. By this we mean integration within and between different types of transport - that each contributes its full potential and people can move easily between them; integration with the environment - so that our transport choices support a better environment; and integration with land-use planning - so that transport helps to make a fairer, more inclusive society."

I, like many other professionals, greatly welcomed the Government's 1998 White Paper. At its heart was the concept of integration: "We want transport to contribute to our quality of life, not detract from it. The way forward is through an integrated transport policy. By this we mean integration within and between different types of transport - that each contributes its full potential and people can move easily between them; integration with the environment - so that our transport choices support a better environment; and integration with land-use planning - so that transport helps to make a fairer, more inclusive society."

The current view of the public is that transport policy is a mess and that the lack of progress since the White Paper suggests that fine words have left a lot of unbuttered parsnips. Tensions between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) and No 10, as chronicled in the press, and changes in personnel in the Department add to that feeling.

What are the facts? First and foremost, the vast majority of motorised movement in this country takes place by road, and of that, a high proportion is by car and van. There has been enormous growth in movement by cars and vans. Passenger kilometres increased by a factor of 13 from 1952-96. Meanwhile, rail transport has remained relatively constant, but at a much lower level, and bus use has declined steadily over the same 44-year period.

There has been a recent revival in rail use, and bus use in London is healthy again. Travel on the Tube increased by no less than 60 per cent over a five-year period during the 1980s. Nevertheless, as a strong advocate of rail investment and use, I have to recognise that there is no prospect nationally of rail and bus redressing the balance with car use, except in particular places. The same argument applies to freight.

Many people are reliant on their cars, especially for journeys where alternatives are simply not available at the time and place required. At one end of the scale of car use are a minority of journeys, perhaps in the order of 20 per cent, which are necessary, fixed in origin, destination and time of day, and have to be made by car. This is unlikely to change within the near future.

The most fruitful way forward is likely to focus on reducing the dependence on the "easiest" target journeys - those for which alternatives, including walking, are already available - and progressively including those for which satisfactory alternatives (either of improved public transport, cycling and walking facilities, or of development patterns which economise on the number of trips) can be made available by suitable policies on infrastructure, services, development and traffic management.

Half the motoring population seem unlikely to change their car use even if prices continue to increase. Smaller percentages would move to a more economical car, reduce spending in other areas, make fewer journeys, use public transport more and car-share. In its most recent Report on Motoring, the RAC finds that 80 per cent of motorists would find it very difficult to adjust to a lifestyle without a car. A high proportion see themselves as unlikely to use a car less even if public transport were better.

However, the new market for public transport is not at all clear. Motorists are ignorant about travel times and fares on public transport. Clearly, transport not only has to be better integrated and journeys more seamless, but information is essential.

This country needs to protect its environment. It must improve its infrastructure to improve its economy. None of this can be achieved unless we strike an appropriate balance between new investment, more efficient use of our existing road space, and restraint of demand where necessary.

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